Last hurrah: The meaning of 1966

World cup 1966

IN 1993, I met Alan Ball and spent an entire evening talking to him about his career. It was a surreal experience, sitting next to a man who had actually won the World Cup. He played a key role, producing the cross that created Geoff Hurst’s disputed goal and was still running strong after 120 minutes. Ball was, after all, the youngest member of the 1966 team and sadly, very young when he died. “The greatest moment of any player’s career,” was how he described winning the Jules Rimet Trophy.

I sensed from Ball that he felt the achievement of 1966 had not been fully appreciated, that people like Bobby Moore and Sir Alf Ramsey could have been treated better. He felt they had been almost discarded by the game and that their experience and know-how had not been put to good use. “We created bloody history,” said Ball. That night, we toasted England’s skipper, who had recently died. “The late, so very great Bobby Moore,” insisted Ball as he raised a glass.


The feeling that England’s success had not been given the credit it deserved wasn’t confined to members of the team that played on that memorable afternoon in July 1966. Ramsey’s team was criticised for its style, its lack of wingers and the manager’s uncomfortable relationship with the media. Ramsey’s selection process was also questioned as some of his players – Nobby Stiles, Roger Hunt, Geoff Hurst, Martin Peters and Jack Charlton were all clearly “Ramsey’s hand-picked  men”.

England’s success had little to do with the artistic and popular movements of the time

Broad recognition of the magnitude of England’s success in 1966 did not really come for 20 years after the event. It was in the summer of 1986, the 20th anniversary, when Michael Parkinson’s The Boys of ‘66 was televised, a series of interviews and reflections that encouraged us to take the England team of 1966 to our hearts.  And when Bobby Moore died in 1993, we woke up to realise that we were starting to lose the very people who had created the history that Alan Ball spoke of. With each World Cup and European Championship failure by England, the legend of 1966 grows stronger and with half a century now passed, the memory of that glorious period threatens to become increasingly distant.

Time has a habit of distorting history and, to some extent, that’s happening right now. Some people would  like to think there’s some deep link between the World Cup “coming home” and the “Swinging Sixties”. In terms of chronology, they cannot be disconnected, but England’s success on the football field has no relation to the artistic and popular cultural movements of the time.


Britain in 1966 was a hub of creativity. The Beatles, just after the World Cup, would release their most innovative and eye-opening LP, Revolver. The Rolling Stones, the Beatles’ arch rivals, brought out Aftermath, a record that included the use of Indian instruments such as the sitar. The music industry was on the brink of great change as the summer of love of 1967 approached. The fashion sector was also moving at pace and by the end of England’s year, everyone had heard about “the face of 66”, Twiggy.

Football was largely untouched by this. Only a few players could align themselves with the vibrant youth movement of the day. In March 1966, George Best crossed over into this world when he returned to Britain after tearing apart Benfica in Lisbon. Best’s haircut and trendy persona earned him the nickname “El Beatle” and suddenly, football had its first “pop star”. Mostly, though, footballers were still seen in much the same way they had been in the 1950s – if you look at the 1966 World Cup team in old footage, not only do the players look older than their years, with the exception of Ball, but some, like the Charltons, Cohen, Wilson and Hunt, could easily be turning out for 1950s Football League teams. The 1966 World Cup helped change that by providing an opportunity for some England players to become household names and to elevate “the footballer” to a new social level. Bobby Moore, for one, became a celebrity, acquiring the image of the classic “golden boy” with a glamorous wife and lifestyle to match. Moore, like Best, began to be part of the new “scene”.

But England being awarded the 1966 competition had nothing to do with the mood of the time. Despite competition from West Germany, the World Cup was given to England in recognition of the Football Association’s centenary in 1963. The country did not immediately embrace the idea with vigour and there was criticism that planning had been slow to take off. Indeed, in 1965, The Observer commented that the World Cup had been “a shabby story of neglect and dithering over four years”. The FA did not get going until 1962 but it needed the intervention of Dennis Howell, Minister of Sport, to secure £500,000 to help build a permanent reminder for the nation. Effectively, it meant that, for the first time, the government was funding a specific sport. This set a dangerous precedent, but played to Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s claim that sport was “essential to Britain’s economic and social development.”

Wilson was a football fan, or so he claimed, and a long-time supporter of Huddersfield Town. Yet Howell had to remind Wilson that the World Cup was coming to England in 1966. He probably had more important things on his mind – in the months preceding the World Cup, Wilson’s Labour government had been grappling with an economy that was out of control. Austerity measures were being planned and within a year, Britain’s currency was devalued.

The government’s half million was put to good use. The football grounds selected for World Cup 1966 all benefitted from construction work. Wembley’s owners, the British Electric Traction Company, had already started work on refurbishing the national stadium, but there were also major projects at Old Trafford, Hillsborough, Roker Park and Everton, where a row of houses was demolished to make way for a stand extension. Interestingly, when the FA earmarked the grounds that would be used for 1966, both Highbury and St. James’ Park, Newcastle, were rejected – Highbury’s pitch not meeting FIFA requirements and a problem over a lease getting in Newcastle’s way.

There was plenty of prestige in hosting World Cup games, but the clubs did not make much cash out of the deal. Most venues did not cover the costs of the improvements made to their grounds. In fact, the clubs only netted around 15% of the gate receipts, with FIFA and the various football associations taking their share of the proceeds.


While England expected an influx of visitors, it soon became apparent there was a concentration of football tourists in London. Even those overseas fans that had to travel north to watch their team preferred to take a train to, say Liverpool or Manchester and return back to London. This meant that some host cities were left disappointed. Liverpool set aside 20,000 hotel rooms but found just 800 were filled. Middlesborough anticipated many more tourists than they actually received, despite making plans for billeting fans with families to compensate for limited hotel accommodation. If you watch films of some of the group and knockout stage games outside London, you can see big gaps in the stands and on the terraces. Goodison Park, Liverpool, supported the games royally, but Old Trafford, Ayresome Park and Roker Park saw disappointing turn-outs. The average gate for the competition was over 48,000 but apart from Wembley, only Everton exceeded that figure.

Contrary to popular opinion, England’s games were not sell-outs. The opening fixture attracted 87,000 and only the France meeting attracted a full house. The 98,270 that saw England beat the French 2-0 was higher even than the final against West Germany, although if everyone who claimed to be at Wembley that day were present, an attendance close to two million would have been in the Empire Stadium!

From a financial perspective, however, World Cup 1966 was a success. Gate receipts topped £1.5 million, of which £850,000 came from games at Wembley. In total, the finals earned 4.3 million Swiss francs, leaving FIFA with £300,000-plus to sustain the organisation until 1970.

Given what we now know about FIFA, it will come as no surprise that the governing body’s role in the 1966 World Cup was all about branding and broadcasting rights and not, in any way, funding. But FIFA had to use the World Cup to fund itself.

It is widely believed that 1966 was the first “modern” World Cup to capitalise on marketing and advertising. The FA built their hopes around a character called “World Cup Willie”, a cartoon lion “dressed in red, white and blue”. There were around 150 products bearing the image of Willie – I especially recall World Cup Willie nougat – and a song by Lonnie Donegan became a big hit.

Dressed in red, white and blue, he’s World Cup Willie
We all love him too, World Cup Willie
He’s tough as a lion and never will give up
That’s why Willie is fav’rite for the Cup.

Although the image of Willie was ubiquitous and a cultural success, the campaign was a financial disaster, raising just £16,000. Willie was the first official mascot of the World Cup and gave birth to a whole range of amusing and bemusing characters, ranging from birds, fruit and computer generated figures.


Willie was closely associated with the Union Jack and, at the time, expressions of nationalism were usually accompanied by the flag of Britain rather than the cross of St. George. By the time England reached the final of 1966, with public fervour reaching a peak, some newspapers could not resist revisiting the past – little surprise given that the second world war had ended just 21 years earlier. Britain’s relationship with Germany had been rebuilt since 1945 and there was some envy that an “economic miracle” was taking place in Bonn, Frankfurt and other major cities. However, despite the odd reminder, the jingoism of the 1990s whenever England  met Germany was not evident. Elsewhere, there was support for Germany and suggestions that England had made the most of their host nation status.

This was a little unfair as every previous host nation had fared reasonably well. There was certainly no need for L’Equipe to carry a cartoon that showed Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles driving a Rolls Royce and referees dressed as British policemen waving them on. Back in England, the German team had made many friends, with Ashbourne in Derbyshire, where they had been based, taking the players to their hearts. The British press was not universally friendly about West Germany’s style, hinting that the reason their opponents had players’ sent off was because Helmut Schoen’s team had provoked them – ignoring the fact that the Germans had played Argentina and Uruguay. The exception was The Times’ Geoffrey Green, who praised their artistry and skill.

As we all know, England won 4-2 amid some controversy, triggering off ecstatic celebrations across London and, more broadly, England. “The blackest day,” commented Manchester United and Scotland striker Denis Law, underlining that the rest of Britain was not joining the party. The excellent Hugh McIlvaney reported that England’s victory had been “the most patient, logical, painstaking, almost scientific assault on the trophy that there has perhaps ever been.”

After the debacle of 1950 and the wake-up calls of defeats against Hungary, which eminent  football and social historian David Goldblatt calls, “English football’s Suez”, 1966 allowed England to regain its confidence. Dennis Follows, Secretary of the FA, said after the final: “Everyone now looks again to England to lead the world.”

A blip?

It was a somewhat delusional statement, for 1966 has proved to be a blip in England’s slow erosion as a major power in the game. When England won the World Cup, they were the third host nation to do so. In eight competitions, five had seen hosts finish first or second, one had reached the semi-finals and two the last eight. At the very least, England had to be in the last four and given their historic status, the final was a realistic aspiration.

Prior to 1966, England had reached the quarter-finals twice and failed to get out of the group stage twice. In the years that followed, the last eight became the benchmark, with the exception of 1990 when the semi-final was reached. Three times England have failed to qualify for the finals, in 1974, 1978 and 1994. More recently, the decline has accelerated, with two last 16 places and 2014’s abysmal showing.

Winning the World Cup had its benefits. For a start, it gave England automatic qualification to Mexico 1970. And there was a post-66 boost to domestic attendances, which climbed steadily until 1972 before slumping all the way through to the late 1980s.

History will be very kind to Sir Alf Ramsey’s England. With the current state of the national team, and a cosmopolitan domestic game that does little to nurture local talent, it could be that England’s time as one of the leading names in international football may become as embedded in the past as golden periods have become for the Austrians, Hungarians and Scots. Only time will tell if this becomes reality, but we will always have 1966.

The History of the World Cup: Brian Glanville
The Ball is Round: David Goldblatt
England and the 1966 World Cup: John Hughson (presentation)
White Heat: Dominic Sandbrook
The finances of the 1966 World Cup: Kevin Tennent (presentation)
The English Press and Anglo-German Football: Dr Christoph Wagner (presentation)

Report by Neil Jensen, Game of the People




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